IE9 preview

Is it getting hot in here? Or is it just the flames?

In An Early Look At IE9 for Developers, Dean Hachamovitch, General Manager for Internet Explorer, reports on performance progress, web standards progress (border-radius, bits of CSS3, Acid 3 performance), and “bringing the power of PC hardware and Windows to web developers in the browser” (e.g. improved type rendering via Direct2D, a Windows sub-pixel rendering technology that replaces Cleartype).

The reported web standards improvements are encouraging, and better type rendering in IE is a consummation much to be desired. These positive notes notwithstanding, what is most interesting about the post is the political tightrope Microsoft team leaders are still forced to walk.

The world has moved to web standards, and Microsoft knows it must at least try to catch up. Its brilliant browser engineers have been working hard to do so. This web standards support is not optional: having just been spanked hard in Europe for anticompetitive practices, Microsoft knows it is no longer invincible, and cannot continue to use claims of innovation to stifle the overall market or drag its feet on advanced standards compliance.

At the same time, Microsoft’s marketing department wants the public to believe that IE and Windows are profoundly innovative. Thus efforts to catch up to the typographic legibility and beauty of Mac OS X and Webkit browsers are presented, in Dean Hachamovitch’s blog post, as leading-edge innovations. Don’t get me wrong: these improvements are desirable, and Direct2D may be great. I’m not challenging the quality of the hardware and software improvements; I’m pointing out the enforced bragging, which is mandated from on high, and which flies in the face of the humble stance other high-level divisions in Microsoft would like to enforce in the wake of the company’s European drubbing and the dents Apple and Google have made on its monopoly and invulnerability.

In short, the tone of these announcements has not changed, even though the times have.

Hachamovitch does an admirable job of sticking to the facts and pointing out genuine areas of interest. But he is stuck in a corporate box. A slightly more personal, down-to-earth tone would have come across as the beginnings of transparency—Web 1.1, if not Web 2.0—and a more transparent tone might have slightly reduced the percentage of flamebait in the post’s comments. (It could only have slightly reduced that percentage, because, on the internet, there is no such thing as a calm discussion of improvements to a Microsoft browser, but still.)

Although I disagree with the tone of many of the comments—rudeness to engineers is not admirable, kind, or helpful—I agree with the leading thoughts they express, which are:

  • Getting IE fully up to speed on web standards is much more important than introducing any proprietary innovations. (Naturally I agree with this, as it is, in a nutshell, what The Web Standards Project told browser companies back in 1998—and it is still true.)
  • Switching to Webkit might be a better use of engineering resources than patching IE.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s refusal to switch to Webkit gives Apple and Google a competitive advantage, and that is good because a web in which one browser has a monopoly stifles standards and innovation alike. By torturing the IE rendering engine every couple of years instead of putting it out of its misery, Microsoft contributes to the withering away of its own monopoly. That might not be good for the shareholders, but it is great for everyone else.